In 2014, David Zwirner gallery launched David Zwirner Books—a publishing house dedicated to catalogues for their exhibiting artists, as well as well-crafted, well-written books that are simply educational and entertaining. Zwirner’s son, Lucas Zwirner, began as an editor for the publishing house and is now the editorial director. Recently, Whitewall met with him in his New York office. Sitting in front of an unframed painting tacked to the wall by the artist Yutaka Sone, he talked about his role in selecting content and writers, and finding projects outside the gallery program.
WHITEWALL: This year David Zwirner gallery is celebrating its 25th anniversary. You’ve grown up with the gallery. How did it shape you?
LUCAS ZWIRNER: Obviously, my father’s business and the gallery was a big part of it. More than that, artists were a big part of it. What’s important to remember is that it didn’t begin as a global business as it is now. It began as all galleries do—as a mom-and-pop shop with a lot of artists that are friends and family friends. We lived in a rent-controlled loft in SoHo that my grandfather had rented and took out a 20-year lease for in the seventies. Artists lived on our couches and slept in the living room, and I was very close with a number of early, early artists. Jason Rhoades, in particular; a great Japanese artist named Yutaka Sone; and Raymond Pettibon.
What’s really mysterious and wonderful about artists is that they really care about details that most people don’t care about. As an artist, you have obsessions that are almost unrelatable, but the results of which can be these amazing artworks. As a child, I got a real sense for what artists’ personalities are like and what they need. There is always this interest in the work of the imagination. What is creativity? What is the environment in which creativity can thrive? How can we make it so that the things that the artists do that are so wonderful and powerful affect a larger number of people?
WW: How did you want to carry over the value you place on relationships with artists to David Zwirner Books?
LZ: The relationship with the artist, and honoring the artist’s vision, ranks very, very highly. There is a baseline professionalism and respect that the gallery has established, and a sense of intellectual seriousness. The books have become this kind of bastion, the focal point, for intellectualism and, hopefully, a democratic one that is still approachable.
With the books you can reach a broader audience. Part of our mandate in the publishing house is do things that have the potential to go out into the world and not just for the select group that can’t afford an artwork. If you can’t buy Morandi, you can take a beautiful Morandi catalogue—and, for instance, look at lots of artists’ responses to Morandi—and be part of that. That’s what we’re after.
WW: What makes David Zwirner Books different than other art book publishers?
LZ: We have talented people working here, especially production people. We only print in Italy. We never cut corners. We are making 25 books a year, about two books a month, so it’s a pretty serious output. I also think we are more similar to a museum publisher in the sense that we are taking on projects that might not have to do with our artists, just because they are interesting. How can we collaborate with other people who are not part of our program? How do we bring great writers into the fold? There’s a real attention to making great books for the sake of making great books, not for the sake of supporting exhibitions.
WW: What is your bestseller?
LZ: I would say Donald Judd: Writings. It’s in its second round. We sold through the first 9,000 copies and we are now into the next 10,000 copies; 20,000 books is not nothing. Another is a funny story. A writer named Rachel Corbett, who is a journalist, wrote a book called You Must Change Your Life, and it’s on Rilke and Rodin. Rilke worked as Rodin’s secretary for a number of years. At the end, Corbett talks about these letters, and when I looked into the letters, I realized that they had never been translated into English. Suddenly, we were sitting on a book that we had presold 2,000 copies.
WW: For you, as a young publisher, what do you try to practice every day?
LZ: To be totally honest, the most important thing for me is staying really open. Good ideas, most of the time, come from all over the place.
It’s also about imagining what an audience wants. I’m not trying to force my vision onto the world. I want to find things that we like that an audience is also going to like. It’s no fun if you make something and no one wants to read it or no one wants to buy it.